How beef and other foods impact health and environment

Popular cooking website Epicurious says it will stop posting new beef recipes in an effort to fight climate change. Jason Hill, a professor in the department of bioproducts and biosystems engineering at the University of Minnesota, joined "CBSN AM" to talk about how what we eat can impact our health and the environment.

Video Transcript

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- In climate watch, popular cooking website, Epicurious, says that it will stop posting new beef recipes in an effort to fight climate change. The website made the announcement earlier this week saying, quote, "our shift is solely about sustainability, about not giving airtime to one of the world's worst climate offenders." Livestock accounts for nearly 15% of total global greenhouse gas emissions and 41% of those emissions can be traced back to beef. So, Jason Hill, a professor in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering at the University of Minnesota, is with me now to talk more about how what we eat can impact the environment.

So, thanks for joining us. I love Epicurious. It's mostly aspirational. I often don't cook-- cook what they have on the website, but they all look really, really good. So, I think it's quite a statement that they are making here.

And I think when people hear cows and climate change, they think about cows passing gas or burping, but it's so much bigger than that. It's about the way the land is used. It's about the food that they eat. So, you know, can you give us a sense of what kinds of food are most harmful to the environment and what are the ones with the lowest impacts?

JASON HILL: The foods of tend to be best for the environment are plant-based foods, fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, those sorts of things. Things that tend to be, on average, worse for the environment are animal-based foods. The meat of the animal, as well as animal products, such as dairy products.

- So, can you sort of explain why? Why are animal products in particular sort of more egregious when it comes to the environment?

JASON HILL: So, one of the big reasons is that animals have to eat themselves and they're very inefficient in converting, say protein, from plant protein to animal protein. For every 20 parts of protein that a cow eats, for instance, only one part is eaten by us in the meat itself. So, that animals require large land footprint and that land footprint is responsible for large greenhouse gas emissions.

- All right, so, if we all decided, look, we're not going to eat animal products then. The UK Business Secretary is considering a full vegan diet in order to help tackle climate change. I know people hear vegan and there's people out there that are going to start to dry heave because they just can't imagine not eating any animal products. But would that be effective? How many people would have to cut out animal products entirely to have an impact on climate change?

JASON HILL: Well, we don't have to cut out animal products completely to have a major impact on climate change. I mean, think about it. If you eat meat seven times a week for dinner, for example, if you cut that down to six times a week, you're still not a vegan, or a vegetarian even, but you've had a major impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. So, I'd like to think of it not so much in absolute terms, like vegetarian, vegan, but think more about a plant-based diet. Something that the basis is plants and plant proteins, like legumes, whole grains, and so forth, but building on top of that maybe a little bit of meat every now and then isn't going to be so bad for the environment.

- Now, generally, I think over the past several years, probably decades, meat consumption has been sort of naturally going down, but I think whenever we have this conversation, there is concern when it comes to jobs. The meat industry is a big industry. It employs many, many people. We're not just talking about the farmers.

And so, I guess my question to you is, is there an alternative? I mean, do we-- is this sort of an either/or situation? I think the president, in his first address to the joint session of Congress the other day, this week rather, he talked about wanting farmers to plant cover crops to reduce carbon dioxide. For the people who are concerned about those who are employed in the meat industry, and they hear people advocating for less meat, what do you say to those people who go, hey, less meat might mean less jobs?

JASON HILL: Well, we certainly can restructure our agricultural system in a way that provides better health, better environmental benefits, but also plenty of employment opportunities. And so, thinking about ways of producing food more environmentally friendly include cover crops, which is not leaving land exposed for certain parts of the year. And of course, it requires people to go out and plant those cover crops.

And so, thinking about the whole food system and ways to optimize it for health, for the environment, and for economic benefit is something that we should do. And that requires both personal decisions that we make in terms of what we eat, as well as political decisions about the sort of subsidies and incentives that we provide farmers to grow different crops in different ways.

- Yeah, there are options available out there. It's not sort of an all or nothing. Jason Hill, it was really good to have you here today to discuss this a little bit. Thank you.

JASON HILL: My pleasure.